Krakow is one of the most culturally and politically significant cities in Poland. For a city of its size, Krakow certainly packs a sightseeing punch with landmark architecture, medieval palaces and extraordinary museums. Main Market Square is Poland’s most beautiful medieval market square and also its biggest; with 200 square meters. The Rynek Główny (Main Market Square) is the social hub of Krakow, lined with pastel-colored townhouses and clusters of cafes and restaurants, which spread onto the cobblestones in summer, and are especially charming at night.
This UNESCO world heritage site is steeped in history, so full of life, with lots of places to eat, and beautiful horse carriages that look lovely when lit up after dusk, and should be your number-one stop for the horse-and-carriage tours. If that’s not enough, the Rynek is also home to three of Krakow’s biggest attractions: St Mary’s Basilica, the Cloth Hall and the city’s newest, glossiest museum: the Rynek Underground, and the never-ending supply of jugglers and living statues. Don’t leave Krakow without going here.
The Wawel Castle was a must-see on my list, and has been declared also a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of the Historic Centre of Kraków. Visiting the Wawel Castle is like going back to the middle ages to a place frozen in time. Incredible workmanship and amazing architectural details; richly adorned with gold and onyx everywhere you look! The castle has not been “restored”; it has been “preserved” for hundreds of years and was one of the few areas not destroyed by WW II fighting. The castle is huge, representing architectural styles of medieval, renaissance and baroque periods. The beautiful arcade courtyard is impressive with its monumental layout, as well as spacious and brightly lit interiors. What stands out is the view of the Vistula River and of Krakow from the Castle grounds. It’s another must-see in Krakow. Every lover of history, art and architecture will admire the place. It’s Krakow’s star!
The place that you must visit one time in your life is to the UNESCO World Heritage–listed Auschwitz-Birkenau, a former Nazi concentration camp where more than a million European Jews and other prisoners were confined or killed during World War II. It is a deeply emotional and thought-provoking experience, as I toured the barracks, watchtowers, railway ramps, gas chambers and crematoriums at the two camps. Furthermore, the guided tour of the museum revealed austere prison blocks, the execution yard, and the only remaining solitary gas chamber, standing silent witness to the millions who died there. At Birkenau I spotted the iconic railway arch through which cramped trains brought throngs of unsuspecting prisoners to their deaths; at the far end of the decaying rows of wooden barracks there’s a stone memorial that provides the only flicker of hope in this devastating reminder of the Holocaust.
The visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau is a must, but also very harrowing experience. Words cannot describe it – you need to see it for yourself. It’s important for everybody to visit, due to its history and the importance of understanding what took place there.
Oskar Schindler’s Factory is a fantastic exhibition showing the history of Krakow during the WWII and tells the story of Schindler and the Jewish prisoners of Krakow who were the inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s Academy Award-winning movie “Schindler’s List.” This hidden gem of a museum gives a true insight into the history of Krakow during the occupation by the Germans. This is an excellent museum, which is truly informative and interesting throughout. It takes you right from the beginning of the war to the end, and really tells the story of how such tragic events took place. The museum focuses on life in Krakow during Nazi occupation and the horrendous living conditions and suffering of Jews in the Krakow ghetto.
The exhibits were very detailed and each room had a different feel with gravel floor, wooden floor etc. The layout of this museum leads you through the run up to the September 1st 1939 German invasion, the occupation, and the story of the factory, as well as other Schindler buildings and businesses, and how people were saved from a terrible fate. Well worth a visit and a true eye-opener of what happened with the Jewish community in Krakow during WWII. There is lots of history behind it, which gives the visitor a fascinating insight! Again, this museum should be visited to remember the victims, as well as ensure nothing like this happens again.
The Jewish District (Kazimierz), the district south of the Old, was the center of Jewish life in Kraków for over 500 years, before it was systematically destroyed during World War II. Rediscovered in the 1990s, thanks to the fall of the regime and worldwide exposure through the lens of Steven Spielberg, Kazimierz has rebounded. It’s been overflowed with numerous synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, and is Kraków’s most exciting district today – which houses some of the wackiest, most stylish independent stores, art galleries, bars and clubs in Krakow. Kazimierz is definitely the coolest part of town!
As a result, the district has become a major tourist attraction and pilgrimage site for Jews, which has led to the return of contemporary Jewish culture in the area. Each summer since 1988 the massively popular Jewish Culture Festival has filled Kazimierz’s streets and cafes with music, while educating Kraków’s residents and guests about the city’s pre-war Jewish history and celebrating modern Jewish culture. Centered around the former Jewish square, now known as Plac Nowy, Kazimierz has emerged as the city’s best destination for cafe culture and nightlife.
Within a mile are 7 still standing synagogues, the Galicia Jewish museum, two ancient Jewish cemeteries, and the Jewish Community Center. The district includes places that were used during the shooting of Schindler’s list, such as the market, the square, the ghetto and OS factory, and Chabad, which hosts many locals and visitors at their services and for Shabbat dinners.
Many of the synagogues were destroyed during WWII, and most of them weren’t fully restored, as there wasn’t a Jewish community after the war to maintain the area.
The Isaac Synagogue is the most interesting of all the Kazimerz synagogues. The design is decoratively endowed with arabesques and arches, yet retains a sober linearity, especially within. Chabad Rabbi Eliezer Gurary runs the synagogue with a smile, and is always ready to provide information to anyone who’s interested. Klezmer concerts take place here every Mon, Wed, Tue & Sun at 18:00. A store inside sells kosher food, sweets, and Jewish calendars, among other items, and around the back of the shul, you’ll find Szalom Falafel and Pizza- Kraków’s only kosher fast food.
The High Synagogue, which houses an interesting bookstore downstairs. The Old Synagogue is equally worthy of a visit, as it is a lovely museum filled with information about Jewish life.
The Popper Synagogue used to be one of the most splendid Jewish houses of prayer in the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz. Now dedicated to community work, this neat, former synagogue has a stunning exterior. Wolf Popper had been one of the most successful and richest Jews in Europe, tucked off Szeroka Street, the main street in the Jewish area. You access it via a fanciful gateway and across a cobbled courtyard. Built by wealthy Jewish merchant Wolf Popper in 1620, and currently out of the hands of Kraków’s Jewish community, Popper Synagogue tends to get left off the Jewish heritage trail as nothing of its original furnishings and murals survived the war, and in fact, little is known of them. It’s now converted into a cultural center and the building is mostly used as an art studio for community programs. Sadly there are no original fixtures left on the inside, as the Nazis desecrated the interior, but nonetheless, it’s worth a visit.
Just behind the Remuh Synagogue, the synagogue was established by the family of famous 16th century Polish Rabbi Moses Isserles – better known as ‘the Rema’ (based on a Hebrew acronym). In use until 1800, this holy burial ground fell into utter ruin during Nazi occupation with only a dozen tombstones surviving their original state. Among them was that of Rabbi Moses Isserles, which many interpreted as proof of his miraculous power. Today the cemetery and synagogue – whose modestly decorated interior features a reconstructed bimah and restored ceiling motifs – are an important pilgrimage site for devout Jews from all over the world.
Super charming Cafe with good food! Cheder: Cafe and festival’s cultural center. Opened by the Jewish Culture Festival Association in a former prayer house, and is next to former old prayer house so you can have sort of feeling that you travel back in time and how life looked like in Jewish district and cafe has an unmistakably Israeli/Middle Eastern flavour. Occupying a single room in a corner plot the interior is spacious with the center of the room unusually and pleasingly clear of obstructions. Seating is eclectic and situated around the periphery and includes wooden tables and chairs and benches and a raised area covered in a rug with small coffee tables designed for patrons to sit on the floor shoeless. A large open space with wooden furnishings, Cheder hosts lectures, film screenings, concert and other events promoting Judaism; however it is most impressive resource is the in-house library of Jewish-related books, many of which are in English. Whatever your relationship with Israel, this quiet, Wi Fi-enabled cafe is undeniably one of the best places to work or study in town, with a delicious cup of Israeli coffee served in a traditional Finjan to guide you. If you visit the Jewish Quarter, then you must visit Cheder for a drink and baklava at the very least and some up its vide. ‘L’chaim!’
I had the opportunity to speak with the Director of the Jewish Community Center, Jonathan Ornstein. It is the headquarter of Kraków’s surviving Jewish community and strengthens it by organizing numerous events, lectures, exhibits and tours each year. It’s a friendly first point of contact for anyone wanting to know more about Kraków’s Jewish community, including Shabbat dinners and more. Walk-ins are welcome!
New Jewish Cemetery is stunning and moving. This enormous cemetery was established in 1800 and was the burial ground for many of Kraków’s distinguished Jews in the 19th and early 20th century. The New Cemetery seems older than the old Jewish cemetery, in spite of the fact that it started operations more recently in the beginning of the XIX century. Many famous Jews from Krakow are buried here. You can see old and relatively new tombstones. Many of them are fractured and decayed, others without exact description and date corresponding to Jews who were murdered during the Nazi occupation. Many tombstones were removed and desecrated by the Nazis, who broke them or used the stone for other purposes. After the war, many of them were returned to their original place, but others could not be recuperated, so the remaining pieces were placed on the walls of the cemetery and used to build the Holocaust memorial in the entrance of the cemetery. The cemetery contains over 10,000 tombs, the oldest dating from 1809. There are many monuments commemorating the Jews who were killed during the Holocaust. It’s a sad place that deserves a visit.
The Temple Synagogue is another real gem of the Jewish district. Kazimierz’s newest synagogue dates back to 1862, with several later expansions; the most recent one having been done in 1924. Under Nazi occupation, the building was used as a warehouse and stables, yet survived the war and regular services were even held here until 1968, before coming to a complete stop a decade later. Since restoration, the gilded woodwork within now hosts many concerts and occasional religious ceremonies, particularly during the annual Jewish Festival of Culture.
Wieliczka Salt Mine is absolutely impressive and stunnning. Wieliczka Salt Mine is one of the most precious and fascinating Polish monuments. The first tourist trail in Wieliczka was established as early as the beginning of the19th century. A couple of centuries later the salt mine had been designated as one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites (1978). I was amazed at the size and scale of these mines. I never expected to see so much carving, artwork, statues, and even chandeliers over 130 meters below the ground level! THIS IS THE MUST-SEE OF KRAKOW, because everyone who has ever heard of Krakow will later ask you whether you went there- It’s a concept to wrap you mind around: One of the greatest medieval constructions in European history, perhaps the major income stream for the polish monarchy for hundreds of years, and a principal center for folk carving figures of salt, even entire theaters and chapels.Wieliczka Salt Mine was most impressive. The underground cathedral carved from the salt was absolutely spectacular! Outstanding! Incredible! Amazing!
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Story & photography by Meyer Harroch – New York Jewish Travel Guide & New York Jewish Guide